July 29, 2005

What Was Your Favorite Book When You Were a Kid?

My youngest child, Agent 97, asked me that question last night and it made me smile. I read a lot when I was a kid – so much so that friends used to make fun of me or even threaten me because of it. Some of it could have been called precocious – a book of Poe’s stories bought at a book fair in third grade, for example, and the occasional classic such as GULLIVER’S TRAVELS snatched from my English-teacher father’s shelves – but most of it was kid books, either fiction or science or history. I loved the CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED comic books that gave me MOBY DICK and A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT and TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNER THE SEA in a quicker and friendlier form than the real things. Like most boys in my generation I read the Hardy Boy mysteries and the Tom Swift books.

But there was one series that thrilled me more than those: the Rick Brant Science Adventure books, 24 volumes written by a pseudonymous “John Blaine” and published between 1947 and 1968. They never achieved the iconic status of Hardy and Swift, but they were more exciting and they gave the reader knowledge along with adventure. Volume 8, THE CAVES OF FEAR (1951), introduced me to that classic boyhood pursuit, cryptography, and the principle of the book code. The first volume, THE ROCKET’S SHADOW (1947), had discussed rocketry in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

Rick Brant, the hero, was a teenager who lived with his scientist father on an island called Spindrift off the northeastern seaboard. He flew his own Piper Cub and traveled the world with his slightly older ex-Marine pal Scotty and their slightly younger Indian friend Chahda (whose name means “fourteen”), solving mysteries that required scientific understanding and physical daring.

And there was one other science-adventure book that was equally special to me: ASSIGNMENT IN SPACE WITH RIP FOSTER, by “Blake Savage.” Rip (Richard Ingalls Peter) Foster was a lieutenant (at that age I idolized anyone called “lieutenant” – it was what I wanted to be, and come to think of it, my father had been a lieutenant in the war) in the Planeteers, an interstellar special force whose job was to explore new planets. He was assisted by the heroic seven-foot-tall pureblood Hawaiian Sergeant Koa, and I can’t for the life of me remember the slightest details of the action of the book, but there was plenty of it. And there was the same scientific foundation as in the Rick Brant books. Here’s a comment from the website of a fan, a craftsman and motor-home named Andy Baird (scroll down to "Assignment in Space"):

I was eight, and the brightly colored cover with its sleek rockets and violent explosions was irresistable. But what I discovered when I got the book home and began to read it was far more than a cheap sci-fi potboiler. The author, Blake Savage, not only spun a riveting yarn of battles in space—he knew his science. Orbital mechanics, chemistry and nuclear physics all played vital roles in the story, and as I read and reread the book I learned much that tied in with what I'd already learned from the excellent Disney book "Our Friend the Atom." This was plausibly extrapolated technology, not fantasy. Tom Swift would have located a thorium asteroid with his Electro-Metalloscope or some equally implausible gadget; Rip Foster identified it by its albedo, just as a geologist would. (I knew this because my father is a paleontologist, and many of the people my parents hung out with were geologists.)…

[Tom Swift author] Victor Appleton didn't know a gamma ray from a manta ray when it came to science. Blake Savage did, and "Rip Foster" proved it. Every detail of the story was thoroughly believable and based on sound physics; that's why the book made such a lasting impression on me. The author was clearly writing for juvenile readers, yet he refused to talk down or oversimplify.

Agent 97’s question brought all this back to me, and made me smile to realize that my two favorite adventure heroes were both named Richard. This morning it occurred to me to look the books up online, and sure enough, I found that there’s a website devoted to the Rick Brant books. And examining the site I learned something I hadn’t known, which made the whole thing fit together: the Rick Brants and the Rip Foster were written by the same person! John Blaine and Blake Savage were both really Hal Goodwin, an ex-Marine combat correspondent, NASA information officer, U.S. Information Agency science advisor, and civil defense director at Nevada nuclear tests, who died in 1990 at age 75.

Hal Goodwin was my favorite writer, and for more than forty years I hadn’t known it.

I bless his memory, and I hope that someday my kids will think back to J. K. Rowling, K. A. Applegate, and their other literary idols, with the same gratitude and affection.